House overwhelming passes waterways bill

Published on: Oct 24, 2013

The House passed its Water Resources Reform and Development Act (WRRDA) by a strong bipartisan vote of 417 to 3 Wednesday evening. The Senate passed its bill earlier this year, setting up what is assumed to be a smooth path to conference, final passage and signing into law by the President.

More than 60% of grain grown by U.S. farmers for export is transported via inland waterways and 95% of farm exports and imports move through U.S. harbors. Accordingly, agricultural groups were overwhelmingly supportive of the bill.

The bill establishes the blueprint for future inland waterways expenditures and although is supposed to be done on a biannual basis, has not been updated since 2007. The authorization process funds specific projects, but WRRDA provides the outline for important reforms to streamline and expedite the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' process for approving much-needed projects to renovate and replace deteriorating locks and dams.

Mike Steenhoek, executive director of the Soybean Transportation Coalition, explained that both the House and Senate versions increased the amount of money collected under the Harbor Maintenance Tax Fund to be used for its intended purpose of port maintenance and dredging for widening harbors, something of increasing importance as the Panama Canal expansion could see larger ships in U.S. waterways. The Senate version calls for 100% of the money collected by the tax to be used on transportation, whereas the House version calls for 80% of those funds to be designated accordingly by 2020.

The bill also looks to streamline the process for Corps of Engineers projects and reduce project completion times. Specifically it limits the Corps of Engineers feasibility studies to three years and $3 million whereas currently these studies have no time limit or budgetary cap.

The newly passed resolution includes verbiage to restructure the cost sharing provision as it relates to Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River, which remains significantly over budget. A statement from the National Grain and Feed Assn. pointed out that Olmstead has consumed a disproportionate share of barge fuel user fees paid by the barge-towing industry and delayed other lock-improvement projects on the inland waterways system.

Under the newly passed WRRDA, the federal government would sustain 75% of the costs to finish Olmsted, with only 25% coming from the Inland Waterways Trust Fund (IWTF). The Senate version calls for 100% of the project be paid by general treasury revenue and not cost-shared 50-50 through the IWTF.

Something pushed by the industry but not included in the final House or Senate version was a voluntary barge diesel fuel user fee to secure the cost-share funding needed to actually construct and renovate the locks on the inland waterway system that would be authorized under the waterways legislation. Randy Gordon, NGFA president, said that stakeholders will "continue to pursue a legislative vehicle" that would allow for the voluntary tax increase. One possible vehicle would be comprehensive tax reform legislation that could come up.